Childbirth is taking a few interesting turns in this modern day of alternative spirituality. A lot of the focus of various "New Age" movements is getting back to the basics. And, considering how life-altering of an event childbirth is, it seems a natural focus. Many mothers are deciding to have their child delivered at home, and a revival of natural child birth has been becoming more and more prominent. Adopting a name used to refer to the head slave or servant of an ancient Greek household, who probably helped the lady of the house through the child birthing process, the modern doula fits into the modern child birthing process from this more natural, spiritual, and un-clinical perspective.
The role of the doula is to "mother the mother". They are similar to a midwife, but take more of an advisor and coach role, and don't perform the delivery. By making the child birth process more natural and casual, less terrifying, the experience of child birth can be remembered as a wonderful and spiritual occasion. The doula tends to be a confident and relaxing presence. This has been shown in multiple studies to ease difficulties with child birth, and the benefits have been acknowledged by the Medical Leadership Council of Washington, D.C, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the World Health Organization. According to "Mothering the Mother, How a Doula Can Help You Have a Shorter, Easier and Healthier Birth", by Kennell, Klaus, and Kennell (1993), the presence of a doula results in:
Doulas are not medically trained, they are there purely for support and as a non-clinical aid. They are sometimes confused with monitrices, which do have medical training. Some people prefer their physician to be in full control of the situation, and the doula's lack of any training or responsibility in that area makes them less likely to clash with the doctor delivering the child. Doulas are, however, familiar with the birth process, and can usually answer any questions about the medical procedures. They typically give prenatal advice, such as preparing a birth plan, suggesting exercises and dietary changes that will help the expectant mother to prepare her body for the childbirth process, etc. Many doulas will also help with the period immediately after birth, giving guidance with breast feeding and helping to watch for post-partum depression.
The lack of formal training means that anybody can call themself a doula, but there are organizations which can be contacted, to get a "certified" doula recommendation. Perhaps the largest of these is the Doulas of North America organization, which provides training and certifications to doulas. One can typically expect to pay around $500 for a doula, but prices can go three or four hundred dollars cheaper or more expensive, depending on demand, experience, etc. The doula can, but does not necessarily, take the role of labor coach. However, the mother's partner is the preferred coach, and the doula will also support the partner, typically making him or her much more participatory in the process.
http://www.dona.org - Doulas of North America
http://www.childbirth.org/faq.html - Do I need a Doula?